Thursday, February 7, 2013

Paper Lantern Lit - Squicky Or Ingenious?

Screenshot of logo taken from the PLL site
Paper Lantern Lit. Heard of it? Perhaps not, but you've certainly heard of the works it has produced.

Founded by Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver (yeah, that Lauren Oliver), Paper Lantern Lit is a responsible for hits such as Meant To Be, Venom, and Fury. But PLL is not a literary agency, nor is it a publishing house. PLL is a self-described "literary incubator."

If you're anything like me, that title means absolutely nothing. Thankfully, I first learned about PLL through an article that explains a little more. According to the Fast Company article, PLL is a kind of idea factory. They brainstorm a concept, develop characters, and even write an outline for the story that details what should happen in each chapter.

The only thing they don't do is write the books. Instead, that task is passed to "fresh writing voice[s]" such as the now well-known Lauren Morrill, Elizabeth Miles, and Fiona Paul. There are others (the article says PLL has sold over 20 books so far), but I can't find a definitive list online of authors represented.

Once the chosen author writes the book, it's shopped out to publishing houses, with the advances and rights going directly to PLL. The authors receive a flat fee, as well as certain other rights.

I must admit, when I first read the article, my response was not positive. It felt squicky (an icky thing that makes you squirm). To me, if felt like a cold, calculating idea factory, rather than the organic, love-based process that writing a book should be. It's not traditional. It's not the way things should be done. A writer should be creative enough to come up with his or her own ideas without being spoon-fed by someone else. Who wants to pay to read a book essentially written by a monkey at a typewriter, filling in the mad libs blanks of someone else's work?

A part of me still feels that way. I do squirm just a little. But look again at the PLL page. Those are some dang popular books. I mean, at this point, who hasn't heard of Meant To Be, Venom, or Fury? The Fast Company article includes a picture of a bookshelf, which, if we're meant to believe holds only PLL books, blows my mind a bit. Origin by Jessica Khoury is on that shelf, as is Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan, Matched by Allie Condie, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis. Across the freaking Universe!

[Shelver note: I have been informed that the aforementioned photo is VERY misleading. It includes many books that are NOT represented by PLL, including those by Ms. Revis, Ms. Condie, and Ms. Khoury. Bad Fast Company, bad.]

Those are best-selling books, books with massive fan followings. Penguin paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire Venom, for Pete's sake. If you read any of those books without knowing they had come from PLL (and chances are you did just that), would you notice anything awry? Odds are you didn't. According to the article, PLL has sold every book it has ever pitched. Ever. Publishers are snapping this stuff up. Clearly, something works.

So is it ingenious? Maybe.

I'll admit, I think working at a "literary incubator" would be one of the best jobs in the world. It would be like the literary version of being an inventor in Willy Wonka's factory. I love coming up with awesome ideas, especially if I'm free to come up with ideas that I love but I might not necessarily be able to write (as was the sticking point with the insanely talented Ms. Oliver).

And the idea of using undiscovered writers to bring the idea to life is just awesome. There are some fantastically talented writers out there who can craft a sentence that would bring you to tears, but they can't write a viable story. Their hooks stink, their plot line is ten years old, whatever. It's like taking the idea behind Twilight (because say what you will but Ms. Meyer can think up a hook like nobody's business) and pairing it with the brains of J.K. Rowling.

Okay, that last bit may have been too hyperbolic, but you get the idea.

But then I wonder, how great of a writer can a person be if they can't think up their own story? Isn't that an integral piece of being a writer?

I don't know. I honestly don't know. The question in this post's title is an honest question. I don't have an answer.

I think the stinking point for me would be in the fuzzy details that the article and PLL's website don't cover. Must a chosen author follow the given outline point for point? Are they allowed to change things, give the story their own spin? Go "off script," so to speak? How much control is an author allowed and how much does PLL retain for itself? Are the writers treated like trained monkeys or are they an integral part of the process? Is the deal the writer is given fair to them? In most cases, possibly, though I wonder if Ms. Paul thought her flat fee was fair after Venom's "six figure deal" was announced.

Was my initial reaction against PLL's business model correct, or was it merely a reaction to something new and different that went against my preconceived notion of the "sacred art of writing"? Again, I'm really not sure.

What are your thoughts? What do you think of the PLL model? Does realizing a book you've read is from PLL change your opinion of the book at all? What about your opinions of the author?

EDIT: I posted an update to this post with additional information from a PLL writer, Ms. Paula Stokes (a.k.a. Fiona Paul).